Read more

The European Dream, section on education

Schools for the 21st Century, 2008

​Education should fit the individual for life as a full participant in society, and teach self-respect and respect for the dignity of others.

Education should promote intellectual honesty and critican minds. It should foster a love of  learning and an appreciation of the supremacy of reason and the scientific method in the search for knowledge.

Education for citizenship should be based on a framework of human rights and responsibilities and should impart the knowledge, cultivate the understanding, and foster the critical skills essential for individual  engagement with society and politics.

It should fit children and young people for life in a democratic society underpinned by empathy, human rights and the rule of law.

Lifestance education

Some implications of our general policy

Humanist and secularist approaches to non-confessional religious and humanist education

The issues at stake

Lifestance education

  • Education  should ensure that children are informed about a range of religious and non-religious lifestances and have autonomy in their choice of their own  lifestance.

  • The school should bring an academic discipline to bear in presenting the beliefs, practices and values of different lifestances as well as assisting pupils to develop their own responses  to them.

  • Publicly funded schools should not promote one particular religious or non-religious lifestance as the only correct one but teach about the various lifestances (including Humanism) factually and in an objective way. Where parents or young people are offered an option of education into a particular lifestance, Humanism must be one option alongside the religions.

  • Education directed at fostering inter-cultural understanding that includes religious viewpoints should also include Humanism as a non-religious lifestance and include the perspectives and culture of non-religious people.

Some implications of our general policy

(a) Should the state support schools committed to religious or other beliefs?

Religious schools committed to teaching as true the beliefs of a particular Christian denomination or another religion are traditional in many states and are almost invariably supported to a greater or lesser extent from taxation. Equality, non-discrimination and a degree of state neutrality can be obtained if all parents have the choice of a school reflecting their own beliefs – including humanist or secularist schools that teach atheism and non-religious morality.

Such a choice (if it can ever be provided) may cater to the wishes of parents, but the system implicitly regards children as the property of their parents, giving parents the right to the state’s assistance in bringing up their children within a particular religious or non-religious tradition – that is, such schools infringe the autonomy of children and young people, making it difficult to come to their own conclusions on these “ultimate questions”. This is almost certainly contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Most humanists are opposed to ‘humanist schools’ on these grounds and because they dislike the segregation of children according to their beliefs that this system entails.

Education without state financial support, either at home or in private schools, is a right guaranteed by Article 2 of the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights:

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

Whatever one may think about the way some private education is conducted, this is a valuable defence against an over-powerful state.

(b) Should publicly funded schools have religion on their syllabus?

When schools are not committed to a religion or belief, should they nevertheless teach about religion and belief in an educational manner, with the aim of providing information rather than encouraging belief?

For example, in France, as in the USA, schools by law ignore the subject, whereas in other countries schools adopt an approach that is in theory objective and educational, albeit it sometimes conceals a bias in the balance of time given to different topics or the range of religious and non-religious beliefs covered. This is the situation (for example) in England, where official guidelines now suggest that Humanism be included in the syllabus of ‘religious education’ alongside teaching about the main world religions. There are some good examples of this in practice but the situation is still developing.

Humanist and secularist approaches to non-confessional religious and humanist education

Examples of lifestance education

HVO (Humanistisch Vormingsonderwijs) Humanist ethical education in the Netherlands

NCZ (Niet Confessionele Zedenleer) Non confessional ethical education in Belgium (Flanders)

In the UK the British Humanist Association had considerable influence on the development of religious education in state schools, for which a non-statutory national framework was published in 2004 after wide consultation and drafting participation. This goes part of the way towards meeting the BHA’s demands

Europe’s humanist and secularist organisations display a wide range of opinions as to what is desirable in the way of religious, moral and humanist education.

The EHF and national humanist and secularist bodies cannot dictate the pattern of education but the EHF can help clarify the issues at stake and try to prevent or remedy discrimination against people based on their religious or non-religious lifestances.

We can define various options that do not offend humanist and secularist principles (as set out in our basic policy on education) and leave the choice between them to be made locally. There must be equal, non-discriminatory treatment of all lifestances and the state and its institutions must maintain a neutral position.

  • Teaching about religious and non-religious lifestances can be done by teachers employed and trained by the state. In this case, a representative humanist organisation(s) should be consulted on what is included in the syllabus about Humanism.

  • Where parents or young people are offered an option of instruction in a particular lifestance, this must be a voluntary option. Such education should be the responsibility of the relevant religious and humanist organisation(s). They should take responsibility for the teacher training and the syllabus, which must include a standard pedagogy and didactic approach.

In some countries there is a combination of these two approaches – one subject for everyone and a optional choice for parents and/or children as to the voluntary instruction in a lifestance. There are several good examples of lifestance education in Europe, including some of specific humanist education developed as an alternative to the education in a specific religion that is found in some countries.

The issues at stake

Across Europe there is huge variation in the treatment of religion and belief, including non-religious beliefs, in schools. This derives from the differences from place to place in religious, cultural and historical backgrounds. There are many ways in which these differences show themselves, including:-

School legal or administrative structures
Any of these may be wholly or partly paid for from public funds. Sometimes churches or other external bodies may be responsible for lifestance education within an otherwise secular institution (e.g., a church may provide a course about Christianity in a public school).

Scope of syllabus
Another key distinction relates to the scope of the teaching provided. A school may offer no relevant teaching at all; a course about a single denomination of a single religion (e.g., Roman Catholicism); a course about a single religion (e.g., Christianity); a course about more than one religion (e.g., the “six great world religions”); a course about both religions and non-religious beliefs (e.g., world religions plus Humanism).

Pedagogical approach
An important distinction is between those courses that suggest that one particular lifestance (or category of lifestance, e.g. religious) is correct and
those that adopt an open, objective, educational attitude.

Facts or morals
There is in addition a distinction between courses that concentrate on the ‘facts’ related to lifestances (e.g., Bible knowledge, the history of religion) and
courses that focus on moral teaching derived from lifestances (e.g., Christian or humanist moral education).

Parental and pupil rights and options
Sometimes parents can choose between a range of alternative courses (which may or may not be comprehensive); Elsewhere parents are given the option to withdraw their child from the relevant teaching offered in the school ; Sometimes pupils at a certain age are themselves allowed to exercise these choices.

There is another question, separate from those regarding teaching: In some schools there are acts of religious worship in accordance with a single religion or religious denomination (and in this case they may be conducted by clergy or by teachers). In other schools there may be acts of religious worship that are syncretic or ‘inter-faith’ or that even try to accommodate the non-religious. Other schools may have no acts of worship or anything like it.

Where there is religious worship, it may take place- within the school day or- outside the normal teaching hours; and it may be- compulsory or- optional at the wish of either the pupil or the parents. 

In real life, approaches will often be muddled and will usually not result from any consideration of the principles involved. However, an analysis on the basis of these paradigms will always be revealing. 


This provides that the State should not interfere with parents’ right to bring up their children according to their own beliefs:

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions.

This Article does not require the state to subsidise religious education: instead, it requires neutrality – secularism – while guaranteeing the rights of parents in private to give their children a religious or non-religious upbringing without state interference.

Article 14

  1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

  2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child

  3. .Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Article 29

  1. States Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to:

  • The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;

  • The development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations;

  • The development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values, for the national values of the country in which the child is living, the country from which he or she may originate, and for civilizations different from his or her own;

  • The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin;

  • The development of respect for the natural environment. . .